White House aides are wringing their hands over the prospect that Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta could be dethroned for his handling of previous accusations of abuse against billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein.
But Acosta’s backers on Capitol Hill are largely sticking with him despite the new charges of sexual trafficking against Epstein, with even some Democrats resisting calls for his resignation.
On Monday, no senator in either party that supported Acosta’s confirmation as Labor secretary called for the former U.S. Attorney’s ouster over the much-criticized 2008 plea deal he cut with Epstein to avoid a public trial over the sex abuse charges and a heavy jail sentence for the financier.
“If he made a mistake or a judgment call or something like that, does that affect the way he’s doing his job now? I’m going to basically judge him on what job he’s doing and how he’s doing it,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who voted to confirm Acosta. As far as calls to resign, he said: “I’m not getting into that feeding frenzy.”
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), the chairman of the party’s campaign arm, said she would need to see an internal report from the Justice Department before she could answer whether she regrets supporting him. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said he wasn’t aware of Acosta’s involvement with Epstein and doesn’t “have any thoughts about it.”
Some Democrats began calling for Acosta’s resignation in the wake of the new indictment.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said Acosta “mistreated these youngsters and he is in a current position where he's an enforcer … [we] don't need somebody like that being secretary of Labor, so he should go.” And Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said it was “time for Acosta to be held responsible for letting Epstein elude real justice for so long.”
But among the six Democratic Caucus members and dozens of Republicans who supported Acosta’s confirmation in 2017 and are still in the Senate, there was no such call. Some said they were concerned about the new charges about Epstein and were following the case closely, but others said Acosta’s handling of the case doesn’t preclude him from doing a good job as Labor secretary.
“I’ve got concerns about every nominee that I’ve ever voted for in administration, with a couple of exceptions,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “I have to get more information on it.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who opposed Acosta, had no comment.
Some lawmakers said Acosta’s past record as Miami U.S. Attorney was weighed during the confirmation process.
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said that Acosta’s handling of the case had been “thoroughly considered” in his committee and that the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations had “all approved of the procedures that Secretary Acosta followed when he was U.S. attorney.” It was a line that many Republicans echoed.
That’s not to say all of Acosta’s Senate supporters aren’t worried.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who voted for Acosta, said he was “very concerned” and that the Labor secretary should have been “more forthcoming” during his confirmation hearing in 2017.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she did not understand why the victims of Epstein’s abuse were not notified of the agreement negotiated by Acosta in 2008 — as required by federal law — and she urged the Office of Professional Responsibility to “immediately” look into its circumstances.
“The criminal indictment unsealed today charges Jeffrey Epstein with truly reprehensible conduct,” she added.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted that if the Justice Department “uncovers misconduct in Florida plea agreement, those responsible should face consequences.”
Acosta was confirmed after Andy Puzder’s Labor nomination was derailed over past allegations of abuse, unpaid taxes and weak support among Senate Republicans. He was largely seen as refreshingly noncontroversial after Puzder’s failure.
During his Senate confirmation, Acosta also faced questions from Democrats about the Epstein case.
Senate HELP Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) even sent a letter to the Justice Department requesting all documents and communications that referenced Acosta's role in the case. But it was not the central focus of his confirmation hearing, and the committee ultimately approved his nomination along party lines.
Still, Senate Republicans have continued monitoring his handling of the Epstein plea deal in the ensuing months; House Democrats have called for probes into Acosta and needled him at a hearing earlier this year over the matter. Acosta told House members he’s “been on record as condemning the terms of [Epstein’s] incarceration” and blamed Florida law for Epstein’s 18-month sentence in the non-prosecution agreement.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said she spoke to Acosta directly about the case two months ago and Acosta told her “the only way for jail time was to make the agreement.” She said she was not concerned about Acosta’s role in the case “after hearing his explanation.”
“I've looked at that. [The plea deal] was early in the application of the new protections for parties that were victims and it's my view that the state prosecutors were appropriate prosecutors to deal with that,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “But we'll see. If there's more that comes out, I'll be glad to look at it.”
That no Republicans were calling for Acosta’s head and even some Democrats were hesitating on Monday will likely shore up the secretary’s position in the White House. Senate Republicans have occasionally tanked nominations they viewed as troublesome, and full-throated outrage from the Senate GOP could have imperiled Acosta’s status in the Trump administration.
Acosta isn’t in the clear yet, given the renewed scrutiny of his role. But unless there’s a new smoking gun, Acosta’s support among Republicans — and some Democrats — appears solid.
“I expect most of this information was considered at the time he was confirmed. Unless there’s new revelations or information out there that could further shake people’s thinking about it” there likely won’t be resignation calls in the Senate GOP, said Senate Republican Whip John Thune of South Dakota. “I would expect that from the Democrats.”